Public Notice: Which CAMP Are You In?

Privatizers launch new strategy for school board elections

Public Notice: Which CAMP Are You In?

In public education today, there are basically two camps. One side wants to maintain public schools as a common good overseen by democratically elected school boards; these folks typically favor project-based learning and other student-focused programs, support classroom teachers, and oppose Texas' ever-more-draconian accountability system. On the other side are the privatizers: corporate reformers who are generally pro-­charter, pro-voucher, and never met a high-stakes standardized test they didn't love.

There are many layers to this, but bottom line: There's a lot of money to be made in privatizing schools. This is one reason the privatizing camp is so hot for standardized testing, including Texas' new widely decried A-F Accountability System. The easier it is to paint schools as "failing," the faster you can hand them over to charters or other private operators under Texas law. (There's also a ton of money in standardized testing. The state's contract for the 2020-21 tests is $73 million, part of an estimated $1.5 billion Texas has spent in the last 20 years. And that doesn't even count the millions individual districts have shelled out for test prep, security, remediation, substitutes, etc. over the same period.)

These battles used to play out mostly at the state level, but lately the privatizing crowd has taken a strong interest in local school board races. That's because Texas school boards now have the power to give away campuses to charter operators under so-called 1882 agreements – even schools that aren't labeled as failing under state standards (for schools labeled failing, the handover is mandatory).

In fact, this 2017 law, named for Senate Bill 1882, actually incentivizes districts to cede campuses to charters or other private operators. Enticements may include potential funding increases and exemptions from some state accountability interventions, so it's easy to see the appeal for cash-strapped districts at first blush.

Unfortunately, these deals also hand over campus control, effectively removing public oversight. Under an 1882 agreement, your locally elected school board is no longer in charge of your child's school. Rather, decisions rest with a private operator whose board may meet hundreds of miles away or even in a different state, making it virtually impossible for concerned parents, teachers, or taxpayers to participate. (The Texas Education Agency's rules for 1882 agreements also put some teachers' rights in jeopardy, though a district court ruling earlier this summer has granted a reprieve for now.)

But back to those school board races.

Last spring, a group calling itself Austin Succeeds launched a new strategy for local school board elections, which is either ingenious or nefarious, depending on your perspective. Called the CAMP (Campaign Activ­ity and Management Program) Fellow­ship, it is, according to its website, www.campfellows.com, "a competitive, paid opportunity focused on deepening community members' understanding of Austin education politics, while equipping participants with the necessary skills to support elected officials and candidates seeking office."

Sounds good, right? Nothing to see here.

Molly Weiner – recently of Texas Aspires, a conservative pro-charter/pro-standardized testing group – is now running a training program designed to gin up support for selected candidates in the upcoming Austin school board elections.

Except that CAMP's Austin program direc­tor is Molly Weiner, a well-known face at the Texas Lege who can often be found testifying in favor of a variety of pro-privatizing school bills, including – you guessed it – SB 1882. Witness records list her as director of policy for the Texas Aspires Foundation, which still turns up on LinkedIn with Weiner as director, though the phone's been disconnected and the group's last social media posts are from late 2019. Coincidentally, Weiner's also the sole contact listed on Aus­tin Suc­ceeds' website (www.austinsucceeds.org) – the above-mentioned outfit that recently launched Austin's CAMP Fellowship.

Texas Aspires was formed in 2016 through the merger of Texans for Education Re­form and the Texas Institute for Education Reform, both of which lobbied successfully for the execrable A-F accountability ratings. As CBS Dallas reported at the time, Texas Aspires was created to push for "parent empowerment" – often a code word for vouchers – "and expanded charter schools." Texas Aspires' LinkedIn page, still live at this writing, shows just two employees: Weiner and Susan Combs, the former Texas comptroller and Trump appointee (at the U.S. Department of the Interior) until her resignation this past spring.

So Molly Weiner, a conservative advocate for charters and standardized testing, now runs a training program designed to groom and gin up support for selected candidates in the upcoming Austin school board elections. CAMP Fellows receive a $2,500 stipend, 13 training sessions, and the chance to "participate in the interview process for candidates" – which is not quite the same as saying they'll actually get to choose which candidates CAMP ultimately endorses. In exchange, fellows are required to provide 100 hours of campaign services during the 2020 election cycle, plus 15 hours of community engagement, and to agree to "support the endorsed candidates to victory."

Both Austin Succeeds' and CAMP Fellows' websites are full of happy buzzwords – "equity-minded," "transformational change," "bridging the gap" – without ever explicitly stating the type of policies they support. In fact, you have to do a fair amount of digging to trace the fellowship back to its pro-charter, pro-testing mother ship. This is all perfectly legal, of course. But it would be naive to think there's no agenda here.

Word is that some fellows are now pushing for more agency and transparency on the CAMP candidate endorsements, presumably fearing that Weiner or her backers will hand-pick candidates predisposed to turn over more schools to charters or embrace other privatizing schemes.

We've yet to see whether CAMP's gambit will pay off in our local school board races. But it's a timely reminder to know who you're voting for – and who's behind them.

Charter Schools Don't Do This

AISD is continuing to provide free meals for any child under 19, or those over the age of 19 who are still in school, through the rest of the year – either at their school, or weekdays 10:30am-12:30pm at one of more than 40 curbside locations throughout Austin. See sites and more info at www.austinisd.org/openforlearning/meals.

The district's buses are also providing free internet access on expanded hours (7:30am-4:30pm weekdays), at least through Oct. 5, at 40 locations around town, primarily at Eastside apartments and neighborhoods; see www.austinisd.org/announcements for a map.


AISD for All, "a new community coalition focused on public education and social justice," is hosting a series of virtual AISD trustee candidate forums starting today (Thu., Sept. 10) with Kevin Foster, running unopposed in District 3, and continuing through the next three Thursdays, all at 7-8:30pm at www.fb.com/aisdforall.


The window to apply for grants from the city's $10 million Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) 2.0 program is Sept. 14-21; apply at www.austintexas.gov/rise or call the phone bank, 512/714-6950, from 7am-7pm.


The 2020 Austin Environmental Directory is out – the 10th edition since it began in 1995, and the first since 2017. A "sourcebook of green issues, products, services, and organizations in Central Texas," it's distributed free in the Austin area at locations including Half Price Books, Central Market North, and Wheatsville, and online at www.environmentaldirectory.info.


The Shoal Creek Conservancy is holding a two-week social distancing scavenger hunt and fundraising campaign Sept. 15-30 in place of its annual Shoal Creek Social. They'll have several virtual and on-the-creek engagement opportunities, with the scavenger hunt map going live Sept. 15, two socially distanced get-­togethers at Duncan Park, and prizes being announced at a virtual happy hour on Sept. 29. See www.shoalcreekconservancy.org for all the info and to donate.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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